Posts Tagged ‘women to know’

So at this point everyone knows about the horrific plane crash last weekend which decimated Poland’s leadership.

One of the passengers on board was the extraordinary Anna Walentynowicz.

Anna Walentynowicz has often been referred to as the woman whose firing served as the catalyst for the formation of Solidarity, the Polish Trade Union whose strike helped bring Poland freedom from the Soviet Union. Her role in the birth of Solidarity has often been overlooked in favor of Lech Walesa, and feminists such as Marilyn French argued that her impact had been overlooked by the media.

Most of the mentions of her legacy I’ve seen seem to basically just describe her as the prologue to Lech Walesa’s accomplishments. The only article which really seems to pay due tribute can be found here. She was a feminist and a committed socialist. It’s unfortunately unsurprising that as she started the strike to take down the totalitarian state her role was relegated to “godmother” as Walesa began to take over as patron saint of Solidarity.

Though her name will likely never appear in high school textbooks, Anna Walentynowicz was one of the foremost figures in bringing down the Soviet Union. The bravery she showed in resisting her corrupt bosses before her retirement sparked a strike which managed to hold the attention of the world. In a culture which still shows utter disdain for unions and the right of workers and their safety, Anna Walentynowicz’s name may have faded from newspaper pages, but what she stood for is as relevant as ever.


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Iris Murdoch.

I was flipping through the NYT Book Review last week, being grossed out by all the fawning over the neuroses of white male writers. Updike, DeLillo, Roth, Eggers, Franzen, Chabon. Really? We’re still talking about these guys? What have these dudes contributed besides overly self-absorbed attempts to justify their selfishness and bizarre issues with life, women, responsibility, not being a general jackass… (okay, Roth, I still kind of like you. Still!).

Enough of them.

I like to think that the fierce Iris Murdoch was born at the gentle-sounding address 59 Blessington Street in Ireland. That’s absolutely Iris. The under-appreciated genius of 20th century literature; the woman whose most fascinating characters are insane and charismatic men; the post-war British writer in love with talking about England who was born an Irishwoman; the adamantly Plato-loving philosopher with ever-vague and shifting political and religious beliefs; of course all that feisty-ness and all that passion and driven would start life on a street called Blessington. That’s Iris herself, all intensity and contradictions with the idea always lingering in the background that there is a way to goodness if we pay enough attention.

Iris Murdoch wrote twenty-six novels beginning in the 1950s up to the end of the 20th century. They’re not all brilliant, but even the mediocre are worth attention. The frustrating thing for a woman and a reader like myself is in a world where the New York Times is still debating the White Men of Post-1950s Literature, Iris still isn’t a household name. Why is that? Why can’t I read some big pieces on people who wrote about shit besides the penis? And hey, if it means anything, Iris wrote about those too!

Iris Murdoch had ideas, and she wrote about them. At length. Her characters can be off-putting when they’re not downright intolerable. I’ve lent her books to so many people, and seen so many reviews, and many of them will say at some point something like this: “I really didn’t like any of her characters.” Which is fair enough. I mean, I don’t read Updike because I could never lie any of his characters. But Iris doesn’t try to make selfishness beautiful. She doesn’t color over them with pretty words to distract you; her books are intent upon pulling you into human existence and the way people treat people, the way people lie to themselves, the way people seek what is good and how they usually fail to reach it.  Oftentimes finishing one of her books is a disgruntling, disheartening experience. The people you want to do well have flaws as deep as anyone else, and there are no real laws of karma. Hell, I finished The Sacred and Profane Love Machine in tears and nearly stomped all over the book. Not because it was bad. Because it was infuriating, and more than a little accurate.

That’s why I go crazy not seeing Iris Murdoch get the attention she deserves. Sure, a movie was made about her and Kate Winslet played her and was all lovely and brilliant and Oxford-esque.

But the movie was ultimately more about Murdoch suffering from Alzheimer’s, and less about the lady with all the ideas, all the passion, the lady who wrote faster and quicker and more cleverly and with more insight into human beings than almost any other novelist from then till now. She never pulled back from revealing the ugly streaks, the lies we tell ourselves, our good intentions which aren’t really so good but we pretend they are and then are surprised when they don’t work out.

So she had a keen grasp of what people are like, an ability to dissect our motivations, feelings, fears, wants and needs. But Iris Murdoch as a writer was more than just that.

Take The Sea, The Sea.

It is all of the above: a meditation on the illusions of a wealthy man retiring from London’s theatre scene. Charles Arrowby’s inner life is more like a play than reality. He assigns motives and thoughts to people without ever paying attention to them, and his inability to relate to others wrecks havoc all around him.

But the book is great for more than just showing us what an absurd character Arrowby is; the book is sympathetic towards his failures. For what is life, much of the time, but repeated failures to step outside ourselves? Murdoch injects philosophy into all her books (more into others than The Sea, The Sea), and more importantly, she has an empathy towards her characters, failures though they may be. She can write with compassion of old men whose dreams have been destroyed but will create new illusions to keep going; she can write of the mercilessness and despair of youth, show it in all its egoism, and make the reader miss it and ache for it. And as she drags her readers through the lives of her many characters a feeling grows and grows that there is more to human existence than brilliance or wit; that what is most needed is a sense of goodness, an ability to truly love other people as much as ourselves.

Iris, John Bayley, and Books

I love Iris Murdoch. I wish I could give everyone one of her books (it’d at least be a nice change from all the fawning over endless middle-class white American men). When I pick up The Green Knight I never fail to see good, otherworldly Peter Mir, a force as strong as death. I see A Word Child and feel protective of the man walking by the river and cherishing his regrets as decades pass him by. I think of The Black Prince, and I think of Julian and everyone else and it’s like an overflowing. The Bell, and the convent and fairy tales and disaster and summer evenings. A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and I’m sitting at a kitchen table late at night with my tie loose talking to the disheveled and lovable Tallis. The Sea, the Sea, and I can smell summer and salt as if I’m standing in front of the rickety old wooden house myself, and people are swimming in the sea and eating cheese and old mirrors are breaking and what is life? Buddhism, Platonic philosophy, history, politics, Wittgenstein, can any of them help us be better to one another? How are we supposed to live? Is it possible to do good, to not lie to ourselves about it? Or is the best we can hope for a lovely swim in the sea and a peaceful disappearance?

Those are the questions Iris Murdoch tackles in all those novels, as well as her philosophical works. Her answers are noteworthy, but getting there is best of all.

From Iris, herself:

Often we do not achieve for others the good that we intend but achieve something, something that goes on from our effort. Good is an overflow. Where we generously and sincerely intend it, we are engaged in a work of creation which may be mysterious even to ourselves – and because it is mysterious we may be afraid of it. But this should not make us draw back. God can always show us, if we will, a higher and a better war; and we can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.” – The Bell

Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgments on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.” – The Sea, The Sea

Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonizing preoccupation with self.”

Good, not will, is transcendent.”

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Malalai Joya is an advocate for women. She is an antiwar activist. She has strongly denounced corruption in her own government.  These are all excellent things. What makes Malalai Joya’s work stand out is that she is not doing all of this work in a western nation, where we happily let women, you know, talk and walk around. Malalai Joya is working and speaking out in Afghanistan.


This is a pretty big accomplishment. I was, from the very very beginning, against the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s not that I’m an utter pacifist. It’s simply that anyone taking a step back and looking at the demographics of the population there would hopefully have come to the sane conclusion that bombing a nation of children is not the best way to promote democracy and end “terrorism.” The vast majority of children, nearly 100%, had witnessed an act of violence. Two-thirds of those acts involved seeing dead bodies. This information is from UNICEF in 1997. I can’t imagine what the statistics are like after the invasion. My personal beliefs tell me that murder is wrong. They also tell me that the murder of innocent civilians and children is especially evil. I am not interested in terms like “collateral damage.” People cannot, and never will be, collateral damage. My own logic also tells me, strangely enough, that to bomb, kill, and destroy usually does not win one too many friends. The people of Afghanistan who are now in their late 30s have been witnessing horrendous violence since they were pretty much in their infancy. I can’t imagine what the long-term effects of this shall be. I’m against sending more troops there. It is not the “good war.” It was a bad, shitty war in the first place that was followed by a war with absolutely no justification in the realm of human decency. The Taliban was (and is) an absolutely atrocious organization. I find some of the mujahedin to be terrifying (from what I understand of them). They also live in a region of the globe which has been subjected to so much violence and so much outside manipulation that no one living outside it can honestly understand what life has been like for them. To not even bother to understand the anger, rage, ignorance, tragedy, oppression is an act of supreme self-involvement. It stuns me that our culture is capable of constant innovation in computers, iPhones, fighter jets… and yet our answer to Afghanistan and Iraq is still to blow things up and drop bombs. On children.

With that in mind, one of the good things to have come out of this is the representative democracy set up in Kabul with a good deal of participation by women. Unfortunately the repression of women’s rights continues, and it will be a long struggle; possibly there will be some major set-backs in the years to come. Malalai Joya is a woman who exemplifies the current situation. She was a delegate to the 2003 Loya Jirga in Afghanistan (the Loya Jirga is a grand assembly used in times of transformation) and was then elected to Afghanistan’s National Assembly. Good! On the other side, though, there have been multiple attempts on her life, and she was suspended from the National Assembly for three years (she has the habit of pointing out the National Assembly includes criminals and warlords).

I’d like to point out some of the things Malalai Joya has said and done in one of the most dangerous political environments on the planet.

She spoke out on how the Northern Alliance, the group the U.S. helped take over things while the Taliban fled, are warlords and also repressive fundamentalists. Anyone reading anything about Afghanistan and not just listening to cable news, by the way, was aware of this:

Respected friends, over five years passed since the US-led attack on Afghanistan. Probably many of you are not well aware of the current conditions of my country and expect me to list the positive outcomes of the past years since the US invasion. But I am sorry to tell you that Afghanistan is still chained in the fetters of the fundamentalist warlords and is like an unconscious body taking its last breath.

The US government removed the ultra-reactionary and brutal regime of Taliban, but instead of relying on Afghan people, pushed us from the frying pan into the fire and selected its friends from among the most dirty and infamous criminals of the “Northern Alliance”, which is made up of the sworn enemies of democracy and human rights, and are as dark-minded, evil, and cruel as the Taliban.”

Being a woman from Afghanistan and daring to verbalize this is one of the reasons Malalai Joya has to fear for her life. The people she is speaking out against are still in power.

According to a UNIFEM survey, 65% of the 50,000 widows in Kabul see suicide as the only option to get rid of their misery. UNIFEM estimates that at least one out of three Afghan women has been beaten, forced into sex or otherwise abused.

The gang-rape of young girls and women by warlords belonging to the “Northern Alliance” still continues especially in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. People have staged mass protests a number of times but no one cares about their sorrow and tears. Only a few of the rape cases find their way into the media. One shocking case was that of 11 year old Sanobar, the only daughter of an unfortunate widow who was abducted, raped and then exchanged for a dog by a warlord. In a land where human dignity has no price, the vicious rapist of a poor girl still acts as district chief.”

Malalai Joya also has addressed some of the attacks she has to live with:

A mafia system is in place in Afghanistan. The US backed president Karzai and his westernized intellectuals have joined hands with fundamentalists of all brands to impose this mafia system on our people. This is the main reason for today’s problems in the deadlocked Afghanistan. Those who speak for justice are threatened with death.

My voice is always being silenced even inside the parliament and once I was physically attacked by pro-warlord and drug-lord MPs in the parliament just for speaking the truth. One of them even shouted “prostitute, take her and rape her!” Despite hating guns, I need to live under the protection of armed bodyguards to survive.”

Ms. Joya has also forcefully condemned the continued occupation and airstrikes. I find the following excerpt a little frustrating, because the people who argue continually for our involvement there are the same people who A) know nearly nothing about the history of Afghanistan or the Middle East in general B) are certain military involvement is the way to change things and are loathe to discuss other options. Those without a grasp on historical knowledge and lacking in ideas constantly seem to be the ones who know the only way to do things. Ugh.

It is a shame that so much of Afghanistan’s reality has been kept veiled by a western media consensus in support of the ‘good war.’ Perhaps if the citizens of North America had been better informed about my country, President Obama would not have dared to send more troops and spend taxpayers’ money on a war that is only adding to the suffering of our people and pushing the region into deeper conflicts.

A troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, and continued air strikes, will do nothing to help the liberation of Afghan women. The only thing it will do is increase the number of civilian casualties and increase the resistance to occupation.

To really help Afghan women, citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere must tell their government to stop propping up and covering for a regime of warlords and extremists. If these thugs were finally brought to justice, Afghan women and men would prove quite capable of helping ourselves.”

Malalai Joya’s memoir will be released this October. Obviously she is a woman of great bravery. She has stood up to warlords and criminals, her own government and the most powerful government in the world. She speaks truth to power and lives with the dangers that creates for her. She tirelessly advocates for the rights of Muslim women and refuses to accept rationalizations of oppression on the grounds of religious fundamentalism. To live with the very real threat of death and to remain so outspoken and committed…

The fundamentalists are counting their days to kill me, but I believe in and follow the noble saying of the freedom-loving Iranian writer Samad Behrangi:

‘Death could very easily come now, but I should not be the one to seek it. Of course if I should meet it and that is inevitable, it would not matter. What matters is whether my living or dying has had any effect on the lives of others…’

Thank you.”

*Interesting bit of trivia: Malalai Joya shares a name with one of the female heroes of Afghanistan, Malalai of Maiwand. During the Second Afghan War (yeah, Britain invaded Afghanistan three times), the Afghani troops were falling back in a particular battle. Malalai, who had been tending the wounded, stood up and rallied the troops, charging into frey herself. She died, though the battle was won. I hope Malalai Joya is able to keep raising her voice and inspiring change, and hopefully one day she will live in a more peaceful nation where she won’t require bodyguards.

Also, I thought the pictures of Afghan women protesting the marital rape law, protesting with their faces exposed, should be seen by everyone. The law was supposed to be overturned, then it was supposed to be reviewed, and there is a powerful faction still advocating for the law. I don’t know what the current status of the law is, but the fact that this is even an issue is beyond horrible.


All of Malalai Joya’s speeches can be found at this excellent website, as well as lots of other information on her doings.

Here is also some basic information on the horrific airstrikes in Farah, Afghanistan that took place in May.

I super-duper highly recommend reading Robert Fisk’s monumental epic The Great War for Civilisation. For some off-the-beaten track information on Afghanistan in particular, see Blue is the Colour of Heaven. By the way, is that the best book title in the world? Yes, yes it is.

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One of the issues I intend to address in depth here are the ways women’s work is trivialized and forgotten. How many times have I read a book on art history or philosophy where the author excuses the lack of featured women by explaining that up until the 20th century females did not have many opportunities to contribute to that particular field? This is utter bullshit. I am constantly discovering female artists from the Renaissance and female philosophers from ancient Rome and so on and so forth. What is more frustrating is how past discrimination is used to justify present-day neglect, and so all sorts of brilliant women from history simply disappear from our collective memory. I reach the pinnacle of angst when I see how this has never stopped and is still happening with living women. Women’s rights are often discussed in terms of cultural relativism, and people have to fight tooth and nail to point out that women who do not want to undergo genital mutilation need to be protected, or that girls have the right to be educated, and women should be able to live without fear of rape or domestic violence. In our own culture women barely have the right to dictate what happens to their own bodies, and appealing to women is something our popular culture seems less and less interested in. A woman has never won an Oscar for Best Director. Women compromise only 17% of the US Congress. But as some folks like to say, feminism was necessary once but not anymore and now can be safely laid to rest, right?

That’s why I want to talk about women who matter, women like Simone Weil. Simone Weil was a brilliant philosopher, writer, mathematician and activist. She lived an intense life of passionate devotion to her ideals before dying at the age of 34 during WWII. After graduating at the top of her class (a class which included Simone de Beauvoir) she taught, wrote constantly, worked at a factory so as to understand those conditions, and joined the French Resistance. She was a contemporary of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, men who made equally worthy contributions but who are far better known.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil

Some of Simone Weil’s excellent works include Gravity and Grace, The Need for Roots, Waiting for God, and Intimations of Christianity Among the Greeks. Wikipedia has a pretty impressive page discussing her philosophy, but I highly recommend Intimations or Waiting for God in order to really get an idea of what she was all about.

Simone Weil’s thought deserves much more than a brief summary, a summary which I am not really qualified to make. Some of her ideas are fascinating and I hope I get to talk about them at some point later on. Her own words are the best introduction, and as I have a great interest in ends&means I think this excerpt is fitting.

“…the law of all activities governing social life, except in the case of primitive communities, is that here one sacrifices human life — in himself and in others — to things which are only means to a better way of living. This sacrifice takes on various forms, but it all comes back to the question of power. Power, by definition, is only a means; or to put it better, to possess a power is simply to possess means of action which exceed the very limited force that a single individual has at his disposal. But power-seeking, owing to its essential incapacity to seize hold of its object, rules out all consideration of an end, and finally comes, through an inevitable reversal, to take the place of all ends. It is this reversal of the relationship between means and end, it is this fundamental folly that accounts for all that is senseless and bloody right through history. Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men – oppressed and oppressors alike – the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels.” – Oppression and Liberty.

Pretty interesting, right?

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